Associative Chains: The Best Way to Store Knowledge

The following is a guest post by Zack Hargrove on the topic of associative chains, a technique you can introduce to your students as a way of retaining important information.

Associative Chains: The Best Way to Store Knowledge

To make sense of the complexity of the universe, the human brain has always looked for ways to simplify.  In the modern era, the gigantic amount of available information gives people opportunities to find out more and more about the world. The key to learning and understanding any discipline or phenomenon is the ability to memorize the required knowledge. And the most effective way of doing it is by using the associative chains technique.

How it works

We tend to think in patterns. Our experience has given us a great amount of material that can serve as a foundation for memorizing any type of information. Association chains basically help us find similarities between new pieces of information and those already in our memories. The best way of explaining how it works is by showing some examples. For that reason, I will divide them into two main topics: words and numbers.


1. Names

For some people, it is harder to remember names than formulas. However, forgetting names may lead to worsening relationships. That’s why we should know how to remember them.

My name is Zack Hargrove. Let’s break it down.

∙ Chain #1. You need to remember someone named Zack. If I had to remember my own name, I would associate it with Zack de la Rocha, the vocalist from Rage Against The Machine.

∙ Chain #2. Surnames are usually harder to remember. I would divide Hargrove into two parts. “Har” is for Harvard University. “Grove” is for the street from GTA San Andreas video game.

Result: I am Zack from Rage Against The Machine who decided to go to Harvard all the way from Grove St. The same algorithm can be applied to any other name.

2. Unfamiliar Words or Phrases

Let’s say you’ve begun to study the Spanish language, and you’re having a problem memorizing the phrase “Mucho gusto” (nice to meet you). Sure, you can repeat this phrase over and over in order to remember it. But you can alternatively spend a minute creating the proper associative chain which will help you memorize it instantly.

It all starts with breaking down the phrase (“Mucho gusto”) into several parts, creating a chain that makes sense to you, and linking it to another chain. Let each chain be a paragraph. One way:

∙ Chain #1. One of my favorite shows is Breaking Bad. I am always very excited to watch it, so during pretty much every episode my eyes stay round just like the letter “O”. Mucho gusto – both words end with the letter ”o.”

∙ Chain #2. The word “Mucho” sounds pretty similar to the English word “much”. The only difference is that I have to add the letter “o” at the end.

∙ Chain #3. The name of one of the characters is “Gustavo”. I have to remove the last three letters and replace them with “o”.

The associative chain is complete. I picture myself seeing too much of Gustavo, and feeling surprised about it, so that my eyes become as round as the letter “O”.

The same principle can be used to memorize  unfamiliar word(s). For instance, say you have to remember the word “embedding”. It is the process of putting social media content on a web page. The root word rhymes with the phrase “in bed”. Thus, it is extremely easy to remember it, imagining yourself putting social media content to bed for sleep.


It will be very easy and interesting for sports fans. Many people who are interested in sports (especially the ones that involve teamwork) see many athletes in jerseys, with a specific number on their backs. The bigger sports fan you are, the more likely you’ll remember the names of the players. And this is crucial for remembering numbers. If the die-hard basketball fan has to memorize numbers like “23103241” – he will be very likely to remember it. Why? Because he would only have to choose the players whose numbers fit in this sequence. This is how you might build the associative chain in this case:

∙ 23 – Michael Jordan. Arguably the best player in the history of basketball.
∙ 10 – B.J. Armstrong. Teammate of Jordan, who will assist him.
∙ 32 – Shaquille O’Neal. One of, if not the most, powerful centers in the history of the game;
∙ 41 – Dirk Nowitzki. Unlike Shaquille, a master of free-throw and 3-point shooting.

The same method will help you memorize dates, phone numbers, or debit card PINs.

The technique of associative chains is something that requires practice. The weirder and the longer the description of your chains may sound, the more likely it is to appear in your head when you need to remember it. The process of “imaginative comparative thinking” is fun, interesting, and most importantly, productive. It develops the ability not only to think outside of the box, but it also helps you exercise your “creative muscle” and memorize the necessary information.

Author Bio:

Zack Hargrove is an editor-in-chief at One of his missions is to share ideas on how to sustain your curiosity on its highest level. He enjoys writing about most things, but especially science and music.


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

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